Ramona Lisa – Charilift’s Caroline Polachek on Recording in Unusual Places

Further Inspirations

Jul 29, 2014 Issue #50 - June/July 2014 - Future Islands
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Caroline Polachek wrote music as a way to fill the long stretches of downtime while on a world tour with her band, Chairlift. As she continued composing songs on her laptophiding in closets or hotel bathrooms when she needed a quiet place to recordthey took on a peaceful, often sorrowful sound that wasn't a fit for Chairlift's upbeat electropop. The songs eventually made their way onto her solo debut, Arcadia, which was released under the name Ramona Lisa. Here, she talks about composing an album on the road and the inspirations that went into her project. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Polachek, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on Ramona Lisa.]

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): You composed these songs on the road while you were touring with Chairlift. Was it difficult to compartmentalize all of that so you could focus on writing this material?

Caroline Polachek: Actually, yes. At first I thought I was writing new Chairlift songs, but then I started realizing that I wasn't. This had to be its own thing, first of all because it didn't have anything to do with instruments or instruments being played live. I really liked how virtual and almost like an early computer game the MIDI process was to me. You're just dealing with the compositional information, rather than recording an instrumental performance. I really liked that the whole record was a series of MIDI signals. The funny thing was that there were a couple songs I wrote along the way where I thought, "Wow, this would sound amazing with live bass on it," or "This would be so much fun to play at a festival." Those songs got pulled from Arcadia, and now will be going on the new Chairlift record. I think the idea of that sort of two-dimensional surface is what set some of the rules for Arcadia.

This was made completely on your laptop, but it doesn't sound lifeless or cold at all, like lo-fi digital recordings sometimes do. How did you achieve your organic sound?

Well, I approached it completely emotionally. I was just going for feeling. In a lot of cases, that was actually yearning. As cheesy as that is, I was often looking out the window and watching people, and missing things, and missing feelings, and missing home. The music kind of became a place for me to feel at home, and to get caught up in the crazy, rapturous, emotional world that I was feeling on the inside.

Parts of the album were recorded in places like London, Tokyo, and Rome. Did you find it easier to write when you were away from New York?

To me it never really feels easy; I'm just compelled to do it. I feel like I have to. I'm one of those people who are always twitchy and anxious, and need to be kept busy. With all of the downtime that comes with touring, it just became what I would wake up to do.

There have been many mentions of the hotel closets and bathrooms you recorded vocals in for this album. Where was the most unusual place you recorded a Ramona Lisa song?

Probably a basement hallway at UCLA. There was a group of us playing a big, outdoor show one afternoon between nighttime gigs at UCLA, and the green room was full. I really wanted to work on the background vocal part for "Getaway Ride," so I poked around and got lost in some of the school buildings until I opened a door and found a tunnel going down into the basement. So I just sort of sat on the cold, damp basement steps, shut the door behind me, and sang down there.

You're a native New Yorker, right?

I was born in New York, but I was raised in Connecticut and Japan.

That may have already answered my next question. I knew that a lot of the inspiration for Arcadia came from your love of nature. I was curious where that came from.

I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid, which I guess is not unusual at all. In my more recent adult years, I haven't gotten to spend much time around plants and animals at all. That's almost part of me. When I was younger, I was an avid horseback rider, but I loved insects as well. I worked for the Department of Environmental Protection for a couple summers, and also as an entomology assistant. So, insects were kind of a big part of my subconscious world. And I loved biology when I was younger; like every teenage girl, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I guess I'm kind of a staunch environmentalist now.

What's interesting, from a compositional perspective, is that a lot of the song structures on Arcadia are really classical pop. I don't mean classical music, but like '60s pop songwriting, the way the bass lines will take you through the bridges. It's been around for half a century. It's not a new idea, but I wanted the individual instruments to feel like wind blowing through the leaves, or clouds moving out from in front of the sun. I thought a lot about sounds as sunlight on this record. There are a lot of different relationships like that which I kept coming back to throughout the process.

It sounds as if Rome was particularly inspirational for this record. How did that city shape your sound?

Rome was total serendipity. Chairlift had played a show there, and in a kind of roundabout way I ended up going back there again and again because of that one show. I was staying as an artist-in-residence at the Villa Medici, which is perched on top of a hill overlooking the Vatican. I spent most of my time holed up there, but I did walk around Rome a lot. There's something really tragic to me about that city. It's the heart of western culture and antiquity as we know it, but it's totally crumbling. Not just the ruins, but the economy is crumbling. You feel this real detachment between the people and their history; it's like they don't really care. Simultaneously, we have other world economies coming up, like Asia and Africa. It suddenly felt as I was witnessing the last sunset of the western empire while I was there. There was something so tragic and romantic about it, and I felt as if I had to document that. It's like my children's generation would not understand western culture like I do; they would see it as an optional thing, and not the thing, which is how I was raised. I was fascinated by that sadness, and the farewell. And so it became not just a pastoral record, but pastoral through the eyes of dying western art.

What is the future of Ramona Lisa? Is the name unique to this set of songs, or could there someday be other Ramona Lisa albums?

I can't answer that right now because I told myself it would just be one album, but I have continued writing more. I guess, who knows? I don't want to commit to anything yet.

[Note: This article first appeared in the digital/tablet/smartphone version of Under the Radar's June/July issue (Issue 50).]



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